So-called good government groups in Wisconsin are eternally hyperventilating about the unfair advantage fundraising gives incumbent candidates. They complain that sitting elected officials can use their office to build excessive warchests, which makes them invulnerable come election time. Generally, their answer is to fund campaigns with taxpayer money and limit total campaign expenditures.

When these groups obsess about campaign fundraising, they miss some very real advantages incumbent legislators have over challengers. Yes, it is difficult for a challenger to raise funds like a sitting legislator – but with the party fundraising system currently in place, viable challengers will get the cash they need to run a campaign.

The real benefit of incumbency comes not in the ability to raise money, but the enormous advantage legislators have in how we structure their work schedule. Essentially, taxpayers pay their legislators to campaign for eight months every two years. On March 13th of 2008, legislators will walk out of the Capitol having completed the 2007-09 biennium. Between March and November, they will be free to do all of the campaigning they want – going door to door, making fundraising calls, and attending church fairs. The entire time, they will be collecting a state paycheck and benefits.

On the other hand, think of someone looking to challenge one of these incumbents. If I own, say, a print shop and want to challenge Senator Schmoe for her Senate seat, I essentially have to quit my job for five months to do all the campaigning I would need to do to be competitive. There’s no way I could do all the retail politics I needed to in my off hours to compete with the incumbent – who is free to do whatever they want during regular work hours. Even if I tried to maintain my job while running for office, it would virtually guarantee that I wouldn’t see my family until election day. These are huge disincentives for successful businesspeople to run for office in Wisconsin.

The answer? Fire our legislators from March through November of campaign years. Let’s see if they can manage running a campaign and holding down a job at the same time, rather than having the taxpayers pick up their salaries during campaign season. This is what their prospective challengers have to endure. Think about how crazy this situation is for Assembly representatives – we pay them salaries for 14 months to do actual legislative work, then pay them for 10 months for them to convince us that they should be back for another two year term to do the same thing.

Another major advantage enjoyed by legislators is the way they get to utilize their office as an incumbent. Elected officials get to flood their district with political newsletters and other mailings, as well as sending out hundreds of the state “Blue Books” (the state almanac).

Certainly, communicating with constituents is an important part of a legislator’s job. If someone in their district needs assistance, it is their job to help. The Legislature is budgeted to spend $141 million over the next two years, with a portion of that dedicated to mailing newsletters that are essentially campaign materials – they list all the representative’s legislative accomplishments, complete with photos and phony questionnaires. Again, taxpayers are picking up the tab to be told how great their incumbent elected official is.

There’s very little taxpayers can do to limit the office expenses of their representatives. Furthermore, name recognition from being in office is one of the unavoidable spoils of getting elected in the first place. But what we can do is make these expenses more transparent. Take the State of New York, for instance – their state law requires all their legislators’ expenditures be compiled in a single book, which is then distributed to the public. The media and public get a chance to see who is spending what in their office budgets – including mailings, phone calls, and travel expenses. Such a process in Wisconsin would begin to shine some light on which legislators are using taxpayer money to gain political advantage.

In recent years, the media have been running around like their collective hair is on fire at the prospect that there might be politics going on at the Capitol on state time. Yet right under their noses is a framework that dissuades good people from running competitive campaigns and gives incumbents significant advantages. While many legislative seats are simply non-competitive, some simple changes can level the playing field for those that are in play. And it won’t require taxpayers picking up the tab for campaign ads.